Fitri Wulandari, The Jakarta Post, Bandung
It was a nice Sunday afternoon. Six people were sitting around a coffee table in the porch of a bookshop, Toko Buku Kecil, Bandung.
In the cool weather, there was a vigorous discussion going on in the group.
"It was absolutely right. Look, Rembrandt always painted women," a guy with black T-shirt and faded black jeans said.
A loud laugh broke out from the others in response to the guy's statement. Then the discussion continued with the same vigor.
"They are discussing a comic book from the Lucky Luke series titled Lucky Luke's fiancee. Since it's Valentines, the theme for the Sunday Afternoon Reading club is 'The Lonely Hearts Club'. We shall talk about loneliness and stuff," Tarlen Handayani, one of the founders of Toko Buku Kecil told The Jakarta Post.
Toko Buku Kecil lives up to its name, which means The Little Bookstore.
The store is a small, three-roomed house with a cozy porch filled with old sofas and chairs. It also has a separate pendopo (open veranda that serves as an audience hall in a Javanese traditional house) where discussions or film screenings are often held.
Snuggled behind a cafe in Bandung boulevard Jl Ir. Haji Juanda, better known as Dago street, the bookstore seems to be hidden from the street's hustle and bustle, famous as a hang-out for local youngsters.
Unlike other bookstores, Toko Buku Kecil or Tobucil, in its shortened form, only has books on literary subjects, the arts, culture, social and political subjects, philosophy, zines (underground magazine about music), religion, journals and children books.
"It's so You've Got Mail," Tarlen laughed, when she was asked about why she had set up the bookstore.
She was referring to the romantic comedy flick You've Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
"My friend and I had always talked about setting up a bookstore, just like the one in the movie," she said.
The idea came when Tarlen and her friends often got together to read books and discuss them. In May 2001, Tarlen and her friend Rani E. Ambyo, set up Toko Buku Kecil thanks to their publishers network.
While the bookstore may be small in terms of its business and facilities, it has a bold mission: To promote literacy, although that's probably a tall order, considering how poor are the reading habits in this country.
Alfons Taryadi, in his book Buku dalam Indonesia Baru, sums up the appalling situation. Indonesia publishes a mere 4,000 new titles, mostly reference and general books, annually. On average, each title sells only about 3,000 copies.
"It's not just about reading literature but also reading about the phenomena that occur around us. Many people read but they don't put it into practice or relate it to real life," Tarlen explained.
"What one has read must be shared with and be beneficial for others," she added.
From this very idea, Toko Buku Kecil launched a variety of activities aimed at encouraging the reading habit.
The store has a Sunday afternoon reading club, story-telling for children, a writing class and film club.
"We never lay down rules for any of these activities. People are welcome to join any class for free. We don't even have any rules about how the activities should go," Tarlen said.
At the Sunday afternoon reading club, for example, the participants are varied. They range from pensioners to housewives to students. Before each meeting, the participants must read one book and then discuss something about the books they have read or a particular theme.
"Those who haven't read the book might be interested to read it after the discussion," Tarlen remarked.
Story-telling for children is interesting. Performed by Tobucil volunteers, the session tries to enliven books for children with music and instruments.
"The volunteers can bring animals, for example, or a band to accompany the session," Tarlen said.
Children from Wiyata Guna school for the blind are Tobucil's most loyal fans. Every Friday, the school takes children aged seven to nine to the story-telling session.
"Attending the session not only exposes them to reading but also takes them out of their isolation from the world of sighted children," says Tarlen.
Another interesting activity is Klab Baca Pramudya or Pramudya Reading Club, a reading club specially dedicated to Indonesia's legendary novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
"So far, we haven't found any other writer with qualities that are as extraordinary as Pramoedya's. It is a token of our appreciation of his work," she stated.
Until now, Tobucil has relied solely on sales of its books to fund its activities. From each book sold, Rp 250 is paid toward the activities.
Other sources are from projects Tobucil carries out with cultural centers or other parties.
The little bookstore does have big dreams, though: To open other little bookstores in places where people have limited access to books.
So far, Tobucil has opened stores in Denpasar, Bali, and Balikpapan, East Kalimantan.
"Little, but many -- that's the idea," Tarlen laughed.